Last week the National Children’s Registry pointed to what it said was “a real reduction in the number of missing children reports lodged over the past two years”.
According to Deputy Registrar Warren Thompson, the numbers are the lowest they have been since the launch of the Ananda Alert system for reporting missing children in May 2009. The system was named after Ananda Dean, an 11-year-old student of Swallowfield All-Age School in St Andrew, who went missing on September 17, 2008. A two-week search for the student ended in horror after her body was found in bushes along a precipice in the Red Hills area of St Andrew.
“We have seen for the past two years a real reduction in the number of reports for missing children. We are coming down from figures of around 2,000 per year, and for 2018/19 we were in the 1,500 region. It’s the lowest it has ever been since the Ananda Alert programme started, other than for the first year, of course,” Thompson told a virtual child protection forum hosted by the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA).
According to statistics obtained from the National Intelligence Bureau, over the period January to June this year, 516 children were reported missing with 387 returning home, leaving 129 still to be found. For the same period last year, 836 children were reported missing with 740 returning home, and 96 still on the missing list.
“As for under-reporting I don’t think that’s the case. I think that in the past few months, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on movement and gatherings, the closing of schools and other entertainment and recreational facilities, as well [this would have contributed to more children remaining at home]. Parents are home and persons are more cautious as to who comes into their surroundings [because of the virus], so one can appreciate the trending down [of missing children]. But over the years the work that has been put in by the police, the office of the Children’s Registry, the Children’s Advocate, CPFSA, Hear the Children’s Cry, and all the other partners have certainly helped the process,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police Dahlia Garrick, communication officer for the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
In the meantime, she pointed out that “Jamaica has a very good record of safe recovery” even for cases that have seemingly gone cold and which was at times due to children running away.
“I remember there was a case with a young lady who went missing for a number of years; she went missing from the Corporate Area and when she was located she was in St Elizabeth. That was an investigation that was ongoing throughout a three-year period where the family and the police were still in touch and oftentimes an investigative lead would be followed on and then you find that a lot of times the information didn’t lead to the type of result, but eventually that person was tracked down and when found, said that given her circumstances [she didn’t want to return],” Garrick told the Jamaica Observer.
“They really put some effort into living under the radar of being detected by family and sometimes you find persons making a deliberate attempt to remain disconnected with family,” Garrick told the Observer.
Quizzed as to the figures for children who are still “outstanding” she said some individuals choose to remain ‘missing’ for a number of reasons.
“In some instances it could have been an abusive situation, sometimes there are pregnancies. We have seen cases where there was a pregnancy and they just figured that facing their parents [would not go too well]. Sometimes it’s just ignorance of the persons who accommodated them.
“We have had cases where a child was staying at another person’s home and when the child was seen by the police in the downtown area they were with an adult and the adult is saying ‘I didn’t know this child was missing [as] she came home with my daughter who attends the same school and she gave some story and I thought it was in her best interest to provide some support’,” Garrick said.
She warned that people found to be harbouring children without the consent of their parents or guardians have been brought to book as mandated by the Childcare and Protection Act.
“Yes, when we find those cases everyone has to come in. Persons have to be held accountable, and normally the courts come into play. We are not getting a lot of those but if it’s one, it’s one too many,” she pointed out.
She said children who leave home without the knowledge of their guardians do so for myriad reasons which the police have tried to address.
“Sometimes it’s cases of abuse, sometimes it’s safety concerns. In cases of abuse we work hand in hand with the CPFSA and also the Victim Support Unit, which plays a critical role, because when someone returns home there is normally that social intervention which is oftentimes led by CPFSA and sometimes even the school will get involved, in terms of counselling through a guidance counsellor. So it’s more than just someone not being at home and [then] coming back home,” Garrick explained.
On the other hand, parents themselves have factored in cases where their children go missing.
“Most of the time when you see [parental abductions], it’s a breakdown in communication, because once you intervene and you get both sides of the story, oftentimes through mediation, you find that it’s just because the parents are not talking, and that creates gaps, so persons feel there is no other action but to forcibly remove a child without the consent of the other,” Garrick said.
It is, she added, “not always a case of being missing in terms of the textbook definition of missing”.
The definition of missing adhered to by the JCF, is “any individual who is absent from his or her place of abode, employment or frequency under any unexplained circumstances and for an unusual time period without reasonable communication”.
In the meantime, she warned that people who fail to alert the authorities when a child who was reported missing returns home are courting danger.
“The danger they are inviting is that whatever the underlying issues are, they would remain. They are not interrupted, no intervention is given, the support mechanisms that are there are not tapped into, so sometimes what you will end up seeing is a habitual runaway, so the person might return home but in a few months something else happens that triggers some conflict and that person, after a while, becomes a habitual runaway,” Garrick pointed out.
She said non-reporting impacts the records held by the police.
“What we find is that sometimes you have children who are accounted for but the police records are not updated. For example, a child might leave the primary caregiver’s home to sometimes go to stay with other family members, so contact is made with the primary caregiver to say ‘this person is here’; however, the police are not updated. Sometimes when you call, they will tell you ‘we have heard from the person but they say they are okay, they are not coming home’. But until we have sufficient evidence to say this person is properly accounted for, we can’t remove them from the records,” she explained.
Garrick, in the meantime, thanked the public for volunteering information which she said has led to many people being reunited with their families. She also said JamaicaEye, the national closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance programme, which networks cameras owned by the Ministry of National Security and privately owned CCTV cameras, has been a big help in making recoveries and arrests.
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